Yanaka’s Loss

In November 1981 writer Kōda Shigeyuki, who wrote under the pen-name of Kōda Rohan, began a serialized account in an intellectual newspaper called Kokkai. That novella, which wrapped up in March of the following year, was called The Five-Storied Pagoda. Kōda, the son of a samurai, was a leading poet and writer of his day and one of the first Japanese to be awarded the Order of Culture, when it was first established in 1937.

Here’s a picture of Kōda as a young man:

The Five-Storied Pagoda concerns a rivalry between two carpenters, Jūbei and Genta, over a contract to build a new pagoda for the abbot of Kannō Temple. Genta had carried out many renovations to the temple over the years, and was the master of Jūbei. When the proposal to build a new pagoda came about, Genta expected to get the commission, however Jūbei pleaded with the abbot to tackle the job singlehandedly, with no involvement from Genta. Jūbei eventually gets the job. Later, one of Genta’s other disciples flies into a rage in defense of his master and attacks Jūbei with an axe, cutting off one of his ears. I’m sure it was a sharp axe. That sort of minor flesh wound doesn’t tend to slow down a Japanese carpenter, as Jūbei was back at work the next day, attending to every detail of the pagoda’s construction. It was completed successfully and even weathered a fearful storm afterwards. Five story pagodas have proven to be remarkable resilient structures over time.

The novella is based on the pagoda of Tennō Temple (天王寺) in Tōkyō. The five-storied pagoda of this temple complex was first built in 1644. It burned down in 1771 and was rebuilt in 1791. This last version, built of Japanese zelkova (wood) was, at almost 35 meters, the tallest of its kind in the area. The pagoda was located within the grounds of the Yanaka Cemetery.

In 1908, the temple donated the pagoda to the city of Tōkyō. It’s not clear why this donation took place, but a clue might be that in 1872 Meiji authorities had confiscated a portion of Tennō-ji and declared it a public Tōkyō cemetery. I presume this same pagoda was located within the confiscated grounds. Perhaps the donation allowed the temple to reduce its annual maintenance budget, who knows.

Here’s what the Tennō-ji pagoda looked like:

A few pictures survive showing some details of the structure – here’s the first roof: 

A raised coffered ceiling on the first floor:

The central pillar has a beautiful lotus leaf carving at the ground floor level:

Kōda’s novella presaged a bit of drama which occurred in 1957 in the real pagoda. A pair of lovers, one a middle-aged salary man, the other a young woman, committed a double-suicide at around 3 o’clock in the morning on July 6, 1957, by burning the temple down and immolating themselves within the structure. This event has come to be known as the  Yanaka Gojūnotō Hōka Shinjū Jiken (the Yanaka 5-story pagoda double arson case).

Pictures survive of the fire:

A towering inferno if there ever was one.

And the aftermath was a sad scene, though the tower did not fall down completely:

Apparently the two lovers had wanted to atone for an adulterous relationship. Strange way to make a point, perhaps, and many Japanese people at the time were dismayed, to say the least, that such a structure was burned for apparently selfish reasons.

The city of Tōkyō decided to not rebuild the pagoda, and left the pagoda’s foundation stones as a marker of the event:

While this story was dramatic in its own way, pagoda’s which burned down and were not rebuilt form a somewhat familiar narrative in accounting for traditional Japanese wooden architecture. In many cases, while the original pagoda may be gone, a model may survive (or have been constructed after the fact), and the pagoda of Tennō-ji is no exception.

This model was commenced in 1962, five years after the fire, and took 25 years to complete:

Beautiful fan-raftered eave on the uppermost roof, parallel rafters for the other eaves:

The sōrin, the top portion of the pagoda representing the stupa, looks to be lathe-turned:

Such detailed bracket complexes!:

Very impressive for 1/10 scale work. One can see where 25 years of work can go – why, in that time an entire US state could be subdivided and paved with McMansions. I’d take the model.

The model is a wonderful architectural treasure. Given that rebuilding the full-scale pagoda was estimated recently at well over a billion yen, it may never happen, however the model captures and preserves the grandeur and dynamism of the original structure very well.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

2 Replies to “Yanaka’s Loss”

  1. Hi Dave,

    thanks for your question. Most books on Japanese temple architecture will show drawings and pictures of various types of bracketing arrangements. You might want to look in “The Genius of Japanese Carpentry” as a first suggestion.


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